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The First Sunday in Lent

Hopefully what I’m about to say won’t surprise you: I’m a very empathetic person. I feel other people’s pain, or joy, deeply.

I can’t handle excessive violence on screen. 

One of the things that really makes me shudder/cringe is when someone has dislocated their shoulder, and they’re in pain, and someone else – either a fellow soldier, or a doctor – has to pop it back in. 

And they’re always like “I know it hurts now, but we have to pop it back in, and just to warn you, the pain you feel now is nothing compared to how much it hurts to put it back.”

But they know they don’t have a choice, because they can’t walk around with a dislocated shoulder.

And the doctors, or soldiers, or whoever, are like “OK, get ready… 1, 2, 3…”

And they pop it back in…

And the person SCREAMS.

Sometimes at the moment of that scream the camera shot is from down the hallway, and everyone turns and looks…

I cringe every time there’s a scene with a dislocated shoulder because I know what’s coming. Because everyone tells the character “this is REALLY going to hurt.” 

And if the character were silent, maybe it wouldn’t seem so bad.

If they just winced… well, that would seem bad, but bearable in the end.

But the cry they release … ugh. I just feel their pain in my bones.

Something about the expression of pain, not just the experience of pain, makes it so much more severe.

I read an article recently about a group of moms who organized a group scream. Literally, the event was: to go out into the middle of a football field and scream. Release all the stress, and anxiety, and grief, and anger, over the last 2 years of pandemic, trying to hold it all together while the world falls apart. Just shout it all into the void. All of the women said it was the most cathartic thing they’ve ever done.

As strange and wacky as that sounds, I think they’re onto something.

They knew they needed to do something with their pain. They’d been experiencing the pain that so many parents, but especially mothers, had in the pandemic – juggling remote learning with working from home, and bearing the brunt of child care. They didn’t need a book group, or a ladies night at the bar, or something that talked about their experience of pain from a distance. They needed to express their pain. They needed a primitive, raw scream from the depths of their souls.

They needed lament.

Lament is not the same thing is grief. Grief is the experience of pain, Lament is the expression of it. Like a dislocated shoulder being popped back into its socket – grief is the pain, lament is the scream.

Lament is holy. It exists throughout Scripture. God’s faithful people wail in pain, anger, and sorrow when they are captured and exiled from their homeland, or otherwise endure the conquest of other foreign armies. Lament is God’s invitation for us to bring our wailing directly to God, because there is no expression of pain too severe for God to handle. 

Lament is not for the faint of heart. It takes all the grief you feel inside and externalizes it. You might be able to ignore grief, but you cannot ignore lament.

And quite frankly, for the past 2 years, I worry that that’s largely what we have been doing: ignoring our grief, because it is just so much to bear, and because, well, quite frankly, we haven’t exactly had time for it when we’ve been in survival mode, trying to literally live through a pandemic. We’re walking around with shoulders dislocated from the burden of grief because confronting that injury and setting it right would require so much more pain than what we’re able to limp along with right now. Pain that would be so overwhelming that it would cause outright, unfettered, yowling, wailing lament.

How can we really fathom over 950,000 — that’s almost a million — Americans dead from Covid-19, and almost 6 million worldwide? Russia invading Ukraine, and the possibility of nuclear war? Trans kids being persecuted, not just by classmates, but by their elected public servants, hunting them down to throw their caretakers in jail? Black bodies being treated as disposable by the forces sworn to protect them? Asian bodies under attack by random acts of hatred? Remember 2 years ago, as the world was about to shut down, and we said that it would probably just be a few weeks before it all passed? And here we are, 2 years later, still wearing masks and not entirely convinced that this time really was the last time a new variant would threaten a return to normal? How can we really begin to face just how much we have lost over the past 2 years, and how broken the world is?

It’s so tempting to want to walk away from that hardship. When we’ve been famished in the desert for a long time already, the temptation toward the quick nourishment of convenient escape is strong. And in fact, those are the moments our own faith can be used against us. “Aren’t you a Christian? Isn’t your faith supposed to mean you know how to handle all this stuff?” Not unlike the devil quoting scripture to Jesus: “Go ahead, throw yourself off this roof. Doesn’t your faith say, ‘God will command angels concerning you, to protect you?’” We’ll be breaking down some of that bad theology in our Wednesday night lenten series this year.

Like Mother Kate said in her sermon last week, we can easily get tempted by things that offer a quick fix away from pain and hardship and seem to offer healing and hope, but which ultimately just leave us stuck and helpless. And it’s not just our turning to physical things around us – drugs, alcohol, sex, Netflix, food, endless doom-scrolling. It’s also our turning to spirituality that offers half-truths and snappy tweets but doesn’t answer the hard questions borne of our pain. The truth is, the only way out is through. 

Just like a dislocated shoulder, the first step on a road to spiritual healing is the most painful one. Setting ourselves right is going to hurt. We will cry and scream and wail. We will have to lament.

And that is why, this year, we are walking a Lent pathway of letting go. Letting go of all we’ve lost – loved ones, safety, security, normalcy, social skills, knowing what the bottom half of people’s faces look like. Letting go of all the things we will never “go back” to. Because as a wise person once told me, “it’s not the letting go that hurts. It’s the holding on.”  So we begin by lamenting all we must let go of. By not just experiencing pain, but expressing it. Lament is holy. There’s even an entire book of the Bible named after it. Lament is the reminder that God is never separate or distant from our pain.

To that end, we’ve brought a few new things into the sanctuary, to help you lament. And you can do all of this at home, too. Honestly, there is so much toxic positivity around us now that lament can seem daunting and foreign. And these practices are simple, ancient, and accessible.

Write down your prayers of lament. Tack them to the wailing wall in the sanctuary, or find a place for them in your home.  Light a candle as you say a prayer and let its flame carry your prayer after the words have run out. When you’re at a loss for words, pray meditatively with prayer beads. Let these ancient practices and structures hold you and carry you on the holy pathway from lament to hope.

Most importantly, beloveds, do this together. In community. We are never meant to bear our burdens alone. You don’t pop a dislocated shoulder back into place without someone else to hold onto as your cry fills the air. 

We may not be on a football field, but gathered together in this sacred space, we are organizing our own group scream. We lament, together. We travel this Lenten road, together. And we will arrive at resurrection, together.

God, in your mercy. Hear our prayer. Amen.

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